The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those novels that has worked its way into our collective consciousness. If someone mentions Jekyll and Hyde-like behavior, you understand what that means, even if you have never read the novella. In the 127 years since it was published, over 100 film adaptations have been made, not to mention stage, radio, television, and countless parodies. Remember that Gilligan’s Island episode, where Gilligan dreams he is Dr. Gilligan/Mr. Hyde, switching to the evil version of himself at the mention of food? Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, as I was hunting around for something to read, I decided I was in the mood for a popular classic, something British and Victorian, preferably. Stevenson’s novel presented itself, and I realized I had never actually read it. That’s probably true for many readers—we hear so much about a story and see so many adaptations, we sometimes forget that we haven’t familiarized ourselves with the original. So I dove in, not sure what to expect.
The story is told from the point of view of a Mr. Utterson, friend and lawyer to Dr. Henry Jekyll, a kind man and upstanding citizen. Utterson is concerned that his friend has recently made changes to his will, leaving everything to a man named Edward Hyde, whom Utterson comes to learn is a completely disreputable and hateful character. Jekyll brushes off Utterson’s concerns and assures him everything is under control. After Hyde is seen beating a man (an MP) to death with a cane, Hyde vanishes and Jekyll assures his friend that he has cut off all ties with the horrible man for good.
For a time, all seems well, with Jekyll visiting with old friends and devoting himself to charitable works. Suddenly, though, Jekyll begins behaving strangely, refusing visitors and not wishing to see anyone. He eventually locks himself in his laboratory for weeks, causing Utterson and Jekyll’s butler to eventually break down the door, where they find not Jekyll, but Hyde, dead by suicide. Papers left by Jekyll, including a letter to Utterson, explain the story: the doctor had been experimenting with good and evil and devised a way to separate his evil side from his good. Unfortunately, the evil Hyde started to take over, and Jekyll was unable to suppress him. The potion he had been using to keep Hyde at bay stopped working. Jekyll realized that Hyde was on the verge of taking over for good and that, as Hyde, he would either be convicted of murder or kill himself. Either way, he writes, in concluding his letter to his friend, “I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.”
What surprised me most about this book is how much detail it lacks. Other than the murder of the MP, none of Hyde’s crimes or depravities are ever described. Jekyll makes reference to the misdeeds of his own youth but never provides any specifics. The transformation from kindly doctor to evil madman, so often a staple of adaptations, is never really depicted, and only one instance of the transformation from Hyde back to Jekyll is recorded. Throughout the book there is a reluctance for any of the characters to speak plainly and provide details—even the final revelations are delivered in sealed envelopes, only to be read in the case of the death of the parties involved. From a Victorian point of view, this shroud of secrecy makes sense; however, I was still surprised given how much liberty filmmakers have taken with the subject matter.
I understand now why so many different versions of this story have been written and filmed: Stevenson provides just enough detail to juice our imagination. The basic premise of good and evil versions of oneself fighting for control is rich with possibility. From a purely physical perspective, the actual transformation can be imagined any of a million ways. From a moral perspective, what would that struggle between evil and good self look like? From a narrative point of view, the story can be interesting when told from the perspective of almost any of the other characters. As I mentioned in my review of Gone Girl, I love an unreliable narrator, and Jekyll would have made a fine one. (If someone hasn’t written that novel yet, I’m sure it’s being worked on.)
I enjoyed The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I’m glad to have finally taken the time to read the original story. Now to check out the 1955 Bugs Bunny version, Hyde and Hare, to get their take on it.